[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for the “Counterpart” Season 1 finale, Episode 10, “No Man’s Land, Part Two.”]
It was always one of the open secrets about “The Wire,” the idea that the second-to-last episode of every season was where the real gut punches landed. So too it was with “Counterpart” Season 1. The new Starz drama has had plenty of twists and turns in its opening batch of episodes, but none bigger than the shootout that decimated the OI, leaving the ranking members of the office with the tragedy of lost colleagues, and also a diplomatic nightmare.
If that bloody cliffhanger was the devastating right hook to the series’ jaw, this Season 1 finale is the bell to sound the end of the round, before a catastrophe so big is able to stop the fight entirely. As both versions of Howard go back to two different versions of the same corner, the circumstances that caused them to swap lives have really begun to make that switch a little more permanent than either of them had previously thought.
Just like the premiere of “Counterpart” allowed Justin Marks and the writing staff to kick off the series with a slower burn, the guarantee that a Season 2 is on the way (with Betty Gabriel!) gave them a creative freedom to leave things in a less dramatic way. One-upping a massacre is an impossible position for a series to be in. Luckily for “Counterpart,” it never had to have that problem. Instead, “No Man’s Land, Part Two” can be more regroup than flashy encore.
“Counterpart” has done such an impressive job of building up this world that by Episode 10, the audience has grown fairly accustomed to the ins and outs of life inside the OI and the various differences between these two worlds. To be sure, it can only be a small delight in the wake of something so horrific and jarring, but the show still had an office procedure surprise up its sleeve with the bulky doodad that Strategy uses to talk to Management. It’s such a distinctive sci-fi gadget, but the garbled voices from on high being delivered through a spokesperson has such an eerie “1984” feel, made all the more unsettling by the fact that we can’t see who is actually giving instructions. This boardroom setup was also a nice precise way to show the subtle differences in interior decor between the two worlds (and an always welcome excuse to have multiple Kenneth Chois in the same episode).
If there’s one character to use as a counterexample to the idea that there’s not as much happening in Episode 10, it’s Quayle. Before he becomes the unlikely hero signal-caller that Management designates to lead the new spy task force, “Counterpart” puts him right back at the heart of another no-win situation. Even after such a horrific car accident that threatened both his and Clare’s lives, there’s a vein of dark humor in seeing the terror in Quayle’s eyes when he wakes up to find that his undercover wife has not only survived but has done so with barely a scratch on her. He’s basically doomed to his own personal, hellish Groundhog Day where he can’t escape the overwhelming pressures of keeping the facade of his life intact. The privilege of his job and his father-in-law being so high up in OI means that no consequence, be it mortal or legal, can separate him from Clare.
After making a truce with Howard Prime to protect Emily in exchange for Clare not being revealed as Shadow, Quayle gets to protect his family for now. The newly formed task force will surely be knocking on his door in due time, but for now a downright domestic Clare has cleaned up all the blood from their kitchen and is now ready to be the wife that her mom has given her the psychological permission to be. (The idea of deception is certainly no stranger to the series, but to wait until the end of the season for that particular conversation to be our main perception of Clare’s mom felt like something of a misstep from a show that’s given so much more to and for the other women.)
If there’s one moment that does ring false in the finale, it’s Pope meeting his end so easily. For someone prone to monologuing, it was maybe only a matter of time before Pope left himself open to someone catching him off guard. Even Ian comes pretty darn close to to offing him right outside his front door in the previous episode. But it’s that commitment to being three steps ahead that makes it feel less earned when Howard catches him upside the head with the pointy end of a fireplace poker. You would think that someone with a table full of clandestine cell phones would be able to spot a potential murder weapon within arm’s reach of an enemy — even when it’s someone as reserved as Howard Alpha — but that’s what literally puts him on the floor, presumably dead in a pool of his own blood.
Episode 10 is also a momentous one for Baldwin, who helps Howard Prime stay alive after he gives her enough to cover Clare‘s fee. Offering price. She gets her own chance take personal revenge at the now deceased Aldrich, too. Her relationship with the waitress seems to be on the outs for now, after last week’s run in with one of Nadia’s friends led her to do some creative googling. (It’s always jarring to watch a fictional story happening so soon in the actual future from when you’re watching it. Apparently Nadia‘s funeral happened on April 18. We will honor her memory accordingly.)
For a show that had a natural, can’t-miss hook like body doubles, it’s a sign of how rich the series is that so much of “No Man’s Land, Part Two” is given over to all the non-Howard pieces on this gameboard. Emily Prime’s spirited argument for diplomacy, Ian’s decision to let his personal feelings cloud his professional judgment, even the infiltrator’s slow death in The Crossing all get their own weight beyond the drama of each Howard trying to return to a place more familiar.
Now that diplomacy between the two worlds has been dispatched, both Howards are locked on their respective sides. Alpha’s rationalization for striking Pope, ”I didn’t have a choice….I just wanna go home,” hints that he’s picking up the survival-at-all-costs mentality that Prime harnessed long ago. And whether it was Alpha’s words in that face-to-face showdown a few weeks back or seeing the look in Emily’s eyes as she comes awake again, Prime is starting to embrace some of that capacity for sympathy that’s been lying dormant since the split. Keeping each Howard distinct has been some of the best work of J.K. Simmons’ career, and this peek into how the two are starting to blur shows that he’s more than capable of keeping up the high quality of the performances as they become less polarized.
One of the really beautiful touches in this finale isn’t just the idea that Howard Prime starts putting flowers in the hospital receptionist’s vase again. It’s that when he has the ones for Emily‘s room, he puts the new ones right in with the old, opting not to take the others out. It’s the perfect metaphor for what the show is doing with both Howards, the blending of two separate, similar lives in the same environment. We’ve already seen one start to succumb to love, with an assist from a Rainer Maria Rilke poem. Now the question has become whether or not darkness has the same power to reach Howard Alpha in his isolated cell. “Counterpart” hasn’t quite hit the reset button, but it’s set the stage for a Season 2 where truly everyone has changed.
“Counterpart” Season 1 is now available to stream via the Starz app.